Merc ML500; Nissan 350Z; BMW 7 Series; Liz Taylor and More In This Month's Letter From Europe


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November 2005
Letter from Europe

Andrew Frankl
European Bureau Chief

I have been bashing away at various typewriters and computers on behalf of The Auto Channel for 10 years now, initially not quite understanding what the internet was all about. Now of course, one only has to go to the nearest Apple Store to see 6 year olds e mailing each other! Amazing.

Equally gratifying were the official figures from Alexa the Amazon subsidiary, showing that TheAutoChannel.com web site has more readers than those of Car& Driver, Motor Trend, Road and Track or Automobile magazine.

Over the years I’ve tried to steer readers clear of some cars but the ML500 is certainly not one of them. Last month I wasn’t exactly over the Moon about the CLS, the latest re-incarnation of the Merc SUV is remarkable.

The days when bits were falling off right left and center are over, the new one I had was pretty near perfect, Great styling, great comfort and a competitive price. Well, competitive in you are in the market at around 45-55 thousand dollars. I am fully aware of the fact that Subaru and others sell perfectly competent SUVs for a lot less but in the above-mentioned segment the ML500 is good value.

We took it to Laguna Seca for a sports car race, something like 400 miles all told and at the end of the day there were no aches and pains of any kind.

Visibility from the commanding and comfortable seats was great and while the little levers on the steering wheel for changing gear were a bit tricky to get used to, after a while it was fine. Personally I prefer Ferrari’s system of up on the right and down on the left but that is a matter of personal preference.

The engine, a 302hp V8 has been around for quite a while and it is OK rather than stunning. I understand the new 5.5 liter ones will be much improved.

One interesting point to bear in mind. Most of the car is made in what is known as “Detroit South”, namely Alabama. Only 21% of the ML500 comes from Germany, the rest either from Canada or, mostly from the USA.

This from a company which not that many years ago would not shift production to Bremen because they were worried about quality!

All in all a fine product which will be even better with the new engine. Consumption-a key factor these days-worked out at a perfectly respectable 18.4 miles per gallon. The trick-keep it steady and don’t do 0-60s to impress the grand children.

What is particular appreciated in this household is the tremendous support Mercedes-Benz in the Bay Area are giving to cancer research. They are very active in supporting leading experts such as Laura Esserman of UCSF, one of the pioneers. She put it rather succinctly the other day at a function organized by Saks 5th Avenue and Mercedes-Benz-“I hope to be out of work in 5-10 years time”. I’ve never wanted someone to lose their job this badly in my life!

The 2005 350Z 35th anniversary edition could not have more different. An extremely attractive sports car in bright-hello Officer!- yellow, it made me feel 30 years younger.

The 300 hp 3.5 liter DOHC 24-valve aluminum V6 is spectacular. Used in many Nissans and Infiniti-s the engine is one of the foundations of the company’s success. Super smooth and very powerful. The manual gearbox is not quite as good as one would expect, it called for a certain amount of concentration, especially when changing down from 3rd to second. Many, many years ago I used to double declutch in my MGB Which worked then and worked very well now in the 350Z.

The street cred was almost second to none, thanks partly to the color of course. The highlighted Brembo brakes worked superbly but also looked good and were appreciated by the cognoscenti.

The weak points-well, not many. Personally I would have redesigned dashboard, it looks dated to me. The little red light which keeps flashing during acceleration is just plain silly, people buy sports cars to accelerate, for those who just want to get from A to B there is always the Prius.

One totally unexpected bonus. Looking at the very beautiful shape of the 350 it never occurred to me that it could take two full sizes golf clubs, yet it did! With a little bit of careful planning there would be enough room for some overnight bags as well as the clubs, something I would never have thought was possible. Well done Nissan!

Fuel consumption, well, in this case it really depends a great deal on your driving habits. Cruising hours on end at 70 miles per hour in 6th gear would I am sure give you the best part of 30 miles per gallon. Revving the daylight out of the engine, especially in City traffic would rapidly bring it down to just under 20 mpg. The price- just over 37 thousand dollars. The new Solstice-admittedly with a lot less features but not that much less fun can be yours for just 20K. Take both for a spin before you decide.

As I was about to send this article off to our Editor in Chief came the sad, dare I say idiotic news about Nissan’s move to Knoxville from Los Angeles. I have nothing against Knoxville but the creative buzz of LA is something they will have huge problems re-creating. It is no coincidence that all major car companies have designers in Simi Valley, partly for the buzz and partly because California is the Number One market in the USA. Carlos Ghosn is no fool, he did a fantastic job resuscitating Nissan but this was one bad move which could end up as a boomerang.

Talking of LA we’ve just returned from a very memorable trip in BMW’s 750Li.

If I were to call it cruise missile it would be apt for two totally separate reasons. Firstly because it is a cruise missile in the automotive sense. We drove from Marin County to just North of San Diego in exactly 7 hours, averaging 70 miles per hour and doing it at over 20 miles per gallon! There was no magic to it, every time we had a chance to pass slow moving cars we gently accelerated past. The emphasis is on gently. Had I floored it we would have been stopping at least twice. The ride, the comfort, was second to none.

I’ve driven all the 750’s rivals-the S class, the big Jaguar, the Audi 8, Cadillacs, you name it. All great cars but when it came to cruising serenely at 85 miles per hour. but none of them had that certain something which made the BM such an exceptional machine.

The seats of course were infinitely adjustable as were the heating controls, navigation and so on, provided you had an able partner to sort out the dreaded iDrive. Yes, like just about everyone else I still hate it, but BMW will not bend, they are determined to stick with it. Looking at it from their point of view it is understandable, right now-according to the Wall Street Journal it is one of the fastest moving cars that dealers are selling. Not just BMW dealers I hasten to add, we are talking about the top 10 cars which if course include the Prius and the Mini. No mean achievement for a car costing the best part of 80 thousand dollars!

I still maintain that they could sell more if they were to make the iDrive system easier, nobody buys the car because of it, they buy it in spite of it, or not at all, as the case maybe.

.The four stalks are also at least one too many but once on the highway all these niggles are forgotten as the 750 moves silently ahead.

To be fair the iDrive also saved us on one occasion. Actually it was the navigational system. We were completely, utterly, 100% lost in Rancho Santa Fe, a part of the World where if you have to ask how much do houses sell for you can’t afford them. Any of them. Most of the time you can’t even see them as these mansions are set well inside the iron gates in acres, acres and acres of land. Would have been a bit difficult to knock on the door to ask for directions! Anyone, my lovely wife Suzie-who had 700 miles to figure out the navigational system tapped in the name of the hotel and hey presto!, we were there in no time. Well done to whoever invented it.

I’ve mentioned another reason for calling this a cruise missile. The BMW also took us to the Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles for a ceremony honoring Dame Elizabeth Taylor and Tom Cruise. The function-organized by BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) was a huge success. One had to admire the sheer guts of Elizabeth Taylor who turned up in a wheelchair, visibly ailing. For one of the most beautiful film stars in the World to turn up looking like she did, well, what can I say? I can think of an awful lot of people who wouldn’t have had the guts to do it.

We had to dash back to Marin County for family reasons and yet again the 750 worked like a charm. Five and a half hours door to door-without stopping of course-and we stepped put of the car without any aches and pains. I know I’ve mentioned this before but unlike some of my youthful colleagues I refuse to do 0-60s and 100-0s as these are mostly irrelevant for the clientele BMW are aiming at. Yes,

I did take long sweeping curves at speeds I would not have attempted in many other cars but then the 750 is no ordinary car. If you have 80 thousand dollars to spare (and if you bought Google shares at 100 the chances are you can) take it for a test drive. If you can live with the iDrive or even without the iDrive-the rest you’ll love.

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